The latest Google Doodle commemorative logo pays tribute to Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815–52) — better known as Ada Lovelace — a computer pioneer who did her pioneering a century before the computer revolution got under way in earnest. It appears on the 197th anniversary of her birth.
Ada is often referred to as the first computer programmer, but that’s perhaps an inaccurate dumbing down of her role in computing history. The daughter of Lord Byron — an absentee father whom she didn’t know — she was an admirer and collaborator of Charles Babbage, the genius who designed the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, mechanical computers he wasn’t able to build. Modern admirers, however, have built functioning Difference Engines and are planning to build an Analytical Engine.
Her notes on the Analytical Engine include a table documenting an algorithm for calculating Bernoulli numbers, hence the “first programmer” label. You can debate whether it counts as a program or not, especially since the computer in question was never built. And people who know more about Babbage’s work and Ada’s notes than I do continue to debate how significant her contributions were. (Babbage himself praised the originality of her work and said she spotted a major mistake in his Bernoulli calculations; maybe we should pay tribute to her as the first debugger.)
Whatever Ada’s role in the history of programming, she grasped the importance of Babbage’s inventions and understood that math was only part of it: she theorized, for instance, that the Analytical Engine might be used to write music. That was a pretty profound thing to realize in the 1840s, many decades before anyone successfully built a computer, let alone one that could compose a tune.
It’s good to see Ada on Google’s home page today, where she’s shown writing her “program” with a quill — with her notes curling into the Google logo alongside the computers that descended from the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. The last machine shown: a modern laptop playing music, thereby fulfilling Ada’s Victorian vision — as computers around the world do every day.